James Harrington (1611-1677): Political Ideas

After reading this article you will learn about James Harrington:

1. Life and Work of James Harrington

2. Political Ideas of James Harrington

3. Importance.

Life and Work of James Harrington:

James Harrington was born at Exton, Rutlandshire, in January, 1611. His father was the owner of a large estate and after the death of his father he inherited that estate. This made him economically solvent.

In earlier centuries many educated and intellec­tuals had the tendency to travel to various parts of Europe. Milton and Harrington were no exception.

Even Aristotle extensively toured different parts of Europe and Asia. Returning to England he threw himself into the management of the inherited property. He also developed a personal relationship with King Charles.

He had no interest in the long drawn controversy between king and parliament and this disinterestedness kept him away from the platform of the great polemics. Harrington acted in different capacities in royal family and because of his personal relation with Charles I the antimonarchists suspected him.

The behaviour of James Harrington created suspicion in the minds of many people and they suspected him as a supporter of absolutism of the monarch. After Charles I was beheaded, Harrington retired from politics and started to write his famous work The Commonwealth of Oceana which was published in 1656.

This single book brought for him a lot of eulogy and reputation and he is called one-book genius. Oceana is still read by many who desire to be acquainted with the republican thought of the second half of seventeenth century. Though Harrington’s Oceana was not a solitary one the book sincerely propagated the basic ideas of republican philosophy.

Political Ideas of James Harrington:

Before entering into the details of Harrington’s political ideas let us make a glance over the plan of the book—Oceana. The book is divided into five sections. The first is called the “Preliminaries”.

This is the most important part of the book in the sense that it contains the gist of his political ideas. The second, called “The Council of Legislators”, deals with the composition and procedure of the constituent body of the imaginary Commonwealth of Oceana.

The name of the third section is “The Model of the Commonwealth called Oceana.” The subject matter of this section is the constitution of Oceana. This section is full of imaginary narratives of the legislators.

“The Corollary” is the fourth section. There are several things in this section, such as the proposed constitution of Oceana, its adoption and inauguration. The form of the new government is also discussed in this section.

The final section is named “Description of Oceana.” It is a short postscript depicting the unexampled felicity and prosperity of Oceana under her ideal government.

While Harrington was framing Oceana the picture of England was in his mind. He wanted that England would be governed by sound principles and right reason. Otherwise its stability would be at stake.

In the guise of fiction he had re-written the history of England and had prepared a horoscope for the future. This approach of Harrington created immense interest in the minds of people and a large number of people read it. Interpretation of the book began to be different from person to person which became a source of controversy.

James Harrington, with great acumen, has elaborated the economic basis of republicanism. Here he has followed the policy and method of Aristotle. According to Harrington, not the tyrannies of monarchs, the ruthless behaviour of the ruling class, religious in-toleration of different religious groups or the all-pervading corruption were the real causes of civil war. It was the unequal distribution of property—that is, land, which contributed to the emergence of civil war.

That is, there was no economic balance in English society and this fomented the dissension. Harrington has said that domestic empire is founded upon dominion and the dominion is property real or personal; that is to say, in lands of goods or money.

If the distribution of property is in proportion or balance then the empire or commonwealth is in stable condition. But if the balance is disturbed or upset then there will be disturbances in the state.

It is now obvious that Harrington has blamed economic inequality as the primary cause of revolution and in this respect he borrowed Aristotle’s idea. But we are of opinion that economic inequality is not singularly responsible for revolution. Other factors are also responsible.

The central idea of the above is that if the total amount of land is held by a few persons, the majority of the people will be both economically and politically dependent upon the nobility, that is, the economically powerful class, and this dependence will cause dissension among the members of this class. But if the land is distributed among the masses, the power and influence of the nobility will be curtailed and the Commonwealth will be saved.

James Harrington wants to emphasize that powerful nobility is inconsistent with a republican form of government. There is also a striking resemblance between Harrington and Machiavelli, both held that there is inconsistency between nobility and republicanism.

Let us highlight another aspect of Harrington’s economic basis of republican state. He classifies the states according to the distribution of land. If one man is the sole owner of the entire landed property he is grand signeur and his empire is absolute monarchy.

If the few or a nobility with clergy be landlords or overbalance the people to the like proportion, it makes the Gothic balance and the empire is mixed monarchy. And if the whole people be landlords or hold the lands so divided among them that no man or number of men overbalance them the empire is a commonwealth.

The law which determines the distribution of land is called agrarian law and any government which has no agrarian law can never be stable. England at the time of Harrington was an agricultural country and this inspired him to deduce the conclusion that in the agricultural sector there shall be balance.

This again reminds us of Aristotle’s influence upon Harrington. But his economic balance was not limited to the agrarian country; it was extended to non-agricultural states. His contemporary Holland and Genoa were not agricultural states. The source of wealth of these countries was trade. It is believed that he was also thinking of these states.

Harrington’s ideal state is the ideal balance of economic forces. This ideal can be attained only by the establishment of an equal Commonwealth.

Harrington’s doctrine of economic balance is, no doubt, novel and, in the opinion of Sabine “He stood alone among the political writers of his time.” The almost same idea has been expressed by Maxey when he says that he was a new departure in political thought. The ultimate base’s of political authority, according to Harrington, is not social contract or covenant in its various forms of the divine right theory or the military force. These bases are misleading and false.

Harrington’s equal Commonwealth does not imply equalitarianism. He has insisted upon the balance of economic forces, and not on the distribution of land or wealth among individuals.

James Harrington was a believer of natural aristocracy. Those, from the standpoint of wisdom and capacity, all men are not equal. Some possess higher abilities than others.

This must be recognized. In the equal Commonwealth the natural inequalities must be given due importance and, on the basis of the natural inequalities, the mutual relationships should be determined.

Laws will be framed and government institutions are to be erected upon this ground. James Harrington, it is now clear, was emphasizing upon artificial inequalities created by the misdistribution of agricultural land and this type of imbalance was the root cause of various forms of discord. But in his frame of commonwealth there shall exist natural inequalities and he did not regard them harmful for society.

The distribution of land among all individuals was not all. The government should be organized for that purpose. Harrington has recommended that in the imaginary Commonwealth there shall be a senate to initiate policies and enact laws, a council consisting the mass of population or their representatives with the function of rating upon the recommendations of the senate and magistracy to execute the policies and laws.

Though James Harrington clearly specifies the idea of separation of powers, his analysis, we believe, focuses that idea. He was thinking of dividing the powers of government among several organs for the purpose of ensuring good administration.

The characteristic feature of Harrington’s Commonwealth is that it is an “empire of laws and not of men”. This is typical Aristotelian principle of constitutional government. Aristotle distinguished between constitutional government and tyran­nical government.

The former looks after the public interest and the administration of the state is run on the basis of laws or constitution. There is hardly any scope of arbitrariness. In the latter, arbitrary rule and personal interest predominate.

Hobbes’s Commonwealth was the “empire of men and not of laws”. Harrington has criticized Hobbes from different angles. He has said that “Hobbes was guilty of mere confusion.”

James Harrington agrees with both Aristotle and Machiavelli on the point that politics is an art. So its management or organisation is a difficult task. Everyone cannot acquire this art. For the smooth running of the Commonwealth the balance between the economic power and political power is no doubt necessary, but it is also necessary that there should be predominance of laws and not of men.

The absolute monarchy is essentially a government of men and that is why this type of government is not stable. In the monarchy there is no scope of rotation of power. One man holds power permanently. This goes against the stability of the state. He has suggested that the laws of elections will be framed in such a manner that every able and qualified person gets the opportunity to serve.

Importance of Harrington:

James Harrington was not an outstanding philosopher of the seventeenth century. Nor there was any radically new idea in his entire thought system. Notwithstanding, the students of political thought enthusiastically read his Oceana because it contains certain republican as well as Utopian ideas.

James Harrington was a political philosopher, a Utopian thinker and a theorist. Oceana was his dream-child. The dream or the imagination of a man cannot immediately be applied to practice. “But” observes Maxey “many of ideas and principles he wove into his dream have been translated into reality and are extant in the world today as living political institutions Particularly, his repeated emphasis on economic equality and rule of law constitutes the kernel of today’s political thought.

Dunning comments; “Harrington has been preserved from oblivion only be appre­ciation of a small circle of readers. Yet to the few who have got to the essence of Harrington’s thought it has been very rich in practical suggestions; and so it happens that the actual institutions in which the Commonwealth ideas has been realized in England and America present a remarkably large aggregate of resem­blances to the establishment of Oceana”.

James Harrington created a profound influence upon the later day political thought. “He laid the foundation of modern political theory”. Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Burke and a host of other European thinkers and publicists of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were indebted to Harrington.

John Adams and Daniel Webster of USA were inspired by Harrington. He gave a very brief outline of the doctrine of separation of powers, which was later on developed by Locke and fully elaborated by Montesquieu.

This again has constituted the central idea of the American constitution. The principle of rotation in offices is really interesting and no doubt a great check upon the misuse of power and corruption. Harrington supported the system of secret ballot which was unheard of in his own days. The system of popular ballot today is popular and part of election.

We shall conclude with the observation of Sabine:

“James Harrington was a political thinker of quite unusual power and independence, the only philosopher of Puritan Revolution who had any philosophical group of social causes behind it”.

His analysis of Puritan Revolution in the light of economic factors evoked consid­erable interest in those days. His approach to revolution and, above all, to politics, is systematic and scientific. Harrington was less interested in liberty than was Milton, but he was more practical.

He had a good understanding of the real situation. His analysis of economic and political facts is still worth remembering. His name is connected with three revolutions—Puritan Revolutions, American Revolution and French Revolution. The economic factors acted behind these revolutions.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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